There is a new threat in the terrorist hotbed of Africa, and the U.S. military can do much more to combat it. Poaching of endangered elephants and rhinos has become a conservation crisis, and profits from wildlife crimes are filling the coffers of terrorist organizations. The twin crises should be cause for alarm for military leaders, not just conservation groups. They need to start working together before it is too late.
In the past two years, about 60,000 elephants and more than 1,600 rhinos have been slaughtered by poachers, according to reports from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and others. About a thousand park rangers have died in the past decade defending the animals.
Illegal wildlife trade generates an estimated $19 billion a year — more than the illicit trafficking of small arms, diamonds, gold or oil. A July Congressional Research Service report found that a rhino horn is worth more than $50,000 per kilogram on the black market — more than gold or platinum. Sadly, poaching elephants and rhinos in Africa is easy money for terrorists, and they are cashing in.
One Elephant Action League undercover investigation in Kenya concluded that illegal ivory funds as much as 40 percent of the operations of al-Shabab, the group behind the November attack at a Nairobi shopping mall where 60 people were killed. The former director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service and the U.N. secretary general have drawn similar links between crime against wildlife and al-Shabab, al-Qaeda and the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.
Last May, President Obama called for a new strategy to fight al-Qaeda and its affiliates. To be effective, these counterterrorism plans must engage not only African defense leaders but also conservation and development leaders. U.S. military plans for Africa should include ending elephant and rhino poaching to cut off a key source of funds for al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
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